Smog Rules Scrub Consumer Products

California - where dirty brakes don't get the de-greaser and people won't smell like roses - a letter from L.A.


Forget sending the Old Spice for Christmas anymore. It's polluting the skies in California. That's right, polluting, just like coal plants.

So are Brut, Chanel No. 5, and even that Chloe you like to spritz on in too great a quantity. This is no Jay Leno joke. It's true.

It seems that these and a bathroom-cabinet-full of other consumer products give off what folks a lot smarter than me call volatile organic compounds.

Take perfume. It contains alcohol, which carries the fragrance. When the alcohol evaporates, it reacts in sunlight with nitrogen oxides, contained in such things as car exhaust, to produce ozone.

You remember ozone: It's that component of urban smog that affects health and scientists worry will someday lead to global warming and melt the polar ice caps and flood Baton Rouge.

I didn't believe it at first either. But these people with the California Air Resources Board (ARB), that's an agency that regulates pollution in the state, have all kinds of computer printouts to show that these items cause their share of smog.

So last week they decided to put controls on personal fragrance products that come out after 1995. That means things like after-shave, toilet water, cologne, and perfume.

They identified 10 categories of consumer products for regulation. Others included dusting aids, nonstick cooking sprays, charcoal lighter fluid, laundry starch, household adhesives, automotive brake cleaners, and insecticides. I haven't cleaned my brakes for at least a month now but am still a big user of bug spray, Pledge, and that Pam you always used to turn frying pans into luge runs for eggs.

(You may want to jot some of these names down. California is the leader in making up air pollution rules, and other states usually follow suit sooner or later.)

It turns out that placing smog controls on these products will help reduce air pollution in California by the equivalent of 1 million new cars. Those are the ARB's numbers, not mine. Personal fragrance products alone release four tons of volatile organic compounds into the air each day - not a steel mill's worth but more than a bathtub ring of filth.

You probably remember when I wrote a year or two ago, back when Jerry Brown was the state Democratic chairman and buttonholing bigwigs for money instead of considering it the end of Western civilization as he does now, I told you that this air-pollution agency had done some funny things. It had enacted pollution limits for hair sprays, deodorants, air fresheners, and glass cleaners.

Well, this latest action is an extension of those earlier smog-control efforts.

Apparently California is already on the way to having the nation's cleanest cars, cleanest gasoline, and cleanest factories. So controlling these smaller sources of pollution becomes an important part of the uncivil war on smog out here.

As you can imagine, people have mixed feelings about the state poking around in the bathroom vanity.

Fragrance manufacturers don't seem to mind the rules too much, since they will apply to new products, not those on the shelf. But look for prices to go up at Woolworth's cosmetics counter.

Others would like to spritz regulators with something other than Halston. Some insecticide makers, for instance, think their products will be less effective in shooing away bugs if reformulated.

Anyway, the rules will be official after 1995. I guess that means when you visit we may be able to breathe a little easier, if not smell the same.

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